Amazon recommended HOMEWARD BOUND: American Families in the Cold War Era by Elaine Tyler May to me when I was searching for research books for Alien Visitors. It’s no good for that but it’s a much better book than Welcome to Mars and a good resource for Undead Sexist Cliches.
While a lot of conservatives hold up the 1950s as the embodiment of traditional America, May shows it was actually an anomaly, an era when women married younger than ever before (there was a shit ton of teen sex going on but much of it was within the bounds of wedlock), stayed home and produced enough children to launch the baby boom. Women with professional training declared homemaking and motherhood would be their careers and threw themselves into it with a vengeance. Working moms who neglected their kids (it was assumed all working moms neglected their kids) created juvenile delinquents; moms who were too devoted to their kids created homosexual wimps (there was no winning; one woman quoted snarks that “the poor mother has been made to replace God in her omnipotence.”). Women who got college educations didn’t have enough kids, threatening social stability (a lot of the “stupid people outbreed smart people” rhetoric of the era was specifically focused on smart women not prioritizing babymaking).
May see the 1950s dream life of a house in the suburbs, kids, a stay-at-home wife and a great sex life as stemming from multiple sources. A good life with lots of consumer goods embodied American superiority over communism; where the USSR held up its women as proud professionals and workers, Americans exalted the feminine delicacy of stay at home moms. Strong families were the basis of a strong stable society. Getting women married young kept them from having premarital sex. And general conformist pressure encouraged everyone to go along: if you weren’t happy as a stay-at-home mom or a father commuting to a demanding, soul-crushing job, the solution was Valium or psychoanalysis, not questioning the system.
May points out that some women really did find this a satisfactory deal; others found it the best they could do given the circumstances and the lack of opportunity for professional careers. An old survey of married women is a major part of the book, as the women discuss what’s good and bad about their loves. Some of them said the comfortable life, great kids and standing in the community (being single was definitely not cool) were worth it, but they describe the downsides — husbands who belittle their opinions, drinkers, adulterers, boredom — in sad tones that make this era a lot less utopian than traditional-values conservatives want to imagine it.
This being the 20th anniversary edition, May looks at the post-9/11 world and finds many similarities to the Cold War (drawing on Susan Faludi’s excellent The Terror Dream). But the heart of the book is its portrayal of the 1950s; among other things, the acceptance of teen marriage gives a whole new meaning to teen love in romance comics.
#SFWApro. Cover design by Nicole Caputo, photograph by Dmitri Kessel (amazingly I actually met one of the women in it, a few years ago, though I didn’t know it at the time). Comics cover probably by Dick Giordano.